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New Era combines sports, celebrities and fashion

Greg Olsen is just the kind of guy New Era Cap Co. looks for when scouting endorsement deals.

The Carolina Panthers tight end was a first-round draft pick. He plays in a popular market and is involved in his community. His celebrity status isn’t oversaturated, yet he appeals to a wide demographic. And, at 6-foot-5 and 253 muscular pounds, he’s certainly easy on the eyes.

But most importantly, he doesn’t go anywhere without a hat on his head.

On the sidelines, at a news conference or hanging out with his family, whether he’s wearing a fitted cap, a pom-pommed tuque or a slouchy knit, his head is almost never bare.

For New Era, which counts on famous athletes being photographed in its headwear, that’s kind of a big deal.

As the official cap of Major League Baseball, the National Football League and the National Basketball Association, the company has perfected the art of athlete endorsement. Now, as New Era diversifies with its more upscale EK line of headwear, athleisure and wearable tech, it’s taking those partnerships to the next level.

--------PHOTO GALLERY: New Era heads back to its roots in fashion

EK stands for Ehrhardt Koch, the man who founded New Era Cap Co. in Buffalo in 1920, and made fedoras, Gatsbys, duck bills and pork pie hats for men. In 1934, trends changed and that side of the business began to fizzle. Koch turned to baseball, and signed a contract with the Cleveland Indians to make their official on-field caps. In 1993, the company locked down the entire league. Under the leadership of current CEO Christopher Koch, Ehrhardt’s great-grandson, the company added the NFL and NBA, and now has more than 420 different licenses, from golf to NASCAR.

Now, with the EK line, the company has come full circle. Branching off from its traditional baseball caps, New Era is turning out spiffy, fashionable men’s hats in the classic silhouettes of yesteryear, updated with fashion-forward fabrics and patterns.

New Era’s driving cap, for example, looks like the classic newsboy cap. But it has a padded sweatband inside, a subtle New Era logo above the ear, and is made with an on-trend, gray-striped cotton fabric. It retails at Nordstrom for $40. The EK Thea fedora, $49.99, has a preppy, pink-and-blue flower pattern, with a gray band and metal New Era flag pinned to the left side. Its Quinn Fedora, $60, comes in camouflage.

Brand extensions like these are common for any consumer company.

“Firms often employ brand extensions in order to leverage what is already a strong brand name in an existing product category by applying it to another, related area,” said Charles Lindsey, a marketing professor at the University at Buffalo School of Management.

But with the EK collection, there comes a bonus, Lindsey said. While New Era must share profits on any officially branded sports hats or apparel with sports leagues, most of the EK line is not licensed, leaving more of the profits in New Era’s hands.

And just because the EK line bears no sports branding doesn’t mean it can’t be promoted by New Era’s endorsement partners.

In today’s world, where athletes are major celebrities, this promotion gives New Era a chance to get its products in front of new audiences off the field and away from press conferences. The hats can be worn to parties, down the red carpet and anywhere a casual cap might not be appropriate.

“It speaks to that customer that might be wearing a sport coat and sitting in the suite,” said Ryan DiNunzio, New Era’s senior marketing manager for football and basketball.

It’s not that New Era has maxed out its potential in traditional caps. On-field caps alone come in several variations, with different designs for July Fourth, Memorial Day, All-Star batting practice and other special events. Off the field, the company has so many licenses, colors, styles and fabrics that the possibilities for consumer caps are endless. Besides sports licenses, New Era has a slew of popular entertainment licenses, such as Marvel, Star Wars and the Wu-Tang Clan. It has just as much variation with its popular knit hats, too.

New Era collaborates with dozens of other hot companies, from Beats by Dre to Bose to Lollapalooza. It produced limited-edition denim caps with Levi’s, trading cards with Topps and specialty Coachella merchandise sold at the trendy California music festival. Most recently, it produced the “Think 100%” fitted cap for Leonardo DiCaprio’s 100% campaign, which seeks “clean energy for all,” and the Hip-Hop Caucus, which promotes activism in the community.

The company has diversified into apparel, too, with its 5th & Ocean line of hoodies and T-shirts. Its line of accessories is popular, too – especially overseas. It has more than 100 styles of backpacks, belts and wallets.

The company also happens to be smack dab in the middle of the two biggest trends in clothing today: athleisure and wearable technology.

Athleisure – sporty, athletic apparel worn for everyday life – has been the biggest, fastest-growing trend in the clothing industry. The trend increased sales in the sports apparel and footwear market by 42 percent in the past seven years, making it a $270 billion market today, according to Morgan Stanley. It’s expected to swell by another $83 billion over the next four years. New Era was far ahead of that trend, and has benefited accordingly.

The company’s innovation center at the University at Buffalo is hard at work researching and developing textiles New Era can use in upcoming products. It’s working on performance-enhancing technologies like antimicrobial, cooling, UV-protective and water-resistant fabrics.

The company also has experimented with wearable technology, another big and growing market. It created a cap camera that Dante Fowler wore to the 2015 NFL draft, capturing behind-the-scenes footage for ESPN.

But traditional headwear still makes up 95 percent of the company’s sales, and sports endorsements play a huge part in that. That’s why the EK line presents such a big opportunity.

“It sounds funny, but each brand is looking to carve out a different part of the body,” DiNunzio said. “We ask specifically for the head.”

Much effort goes into finding the right brand ambassadors. New Era scouts players while they’re in school, just like sports teams do, but it waits to see what kind of consumer market a player lands in before they seal the deal. Team performance matters, as well, because sales tend to rise and fall with a team’s popularity. The team’s colors come into play, too – the more fashionable the color combination, the better.

But securing those ambassadors is a competitive business. New Era is battling against not just Nike, Under Armour, Reebok and Adidas, but also companies outside sportswear – everything from Mercedes-Benz, Samsung and Rolex to Gillette, Hugo Boss and Tommy Hilfiger.

The EK line makes New Era more versatile, and helps it differentiate itself.

“We’ve got that juxtaposition between fashion and sports,” DiNunzio said. “There’s only a small handful of brands that can live in both worlds.”